Molding artists at the Carbondale Clay Center |

Molding artists at the Carbondale Clay Center

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Weekly
Paul Conrad Aspen Times Weekly

CARBONDALE Early in September, the Carbondale Clay Center underwent a major upheaval; one that changed the entire look, feel, and especially volume, of the nonprofit ceramics institution.It wasnt a change in leadership, or mission, or a financial meltdown. In fact, this change has been an annual occurrence for three years now, so, however abrupt, it was also expected. It was the move from the Clay Centers summertime mode childrens classes, unrestrained imagination, chaos to the tenor it retains, more or less, for the rest of the year.June through August is all kids, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., said Lauren Kearns, who has been director of the Carbondale Clay Center for four years. Its wild. Its hysterical. We cant believe what we overhear, what the kids talk about. You have to be OK with a certain level of chaos.Kearns launched an artists-in-residence program in 2006, to maintain some of that energy level. Before the program, the place went dark and silent if there was no class in session. Now, the day-to-day atmosphere of the Clay Center revolves around the three emerging ceramists, who come and go as they please, utilizing their studios whenever they please. There is a quiet intensity as the residents early-20-somethings, from other parts of the country, and committed to pottery and their own artistic development settle into Carbondale for the nine-month stretch. Shelves removed during the summer, when young elbows abound are back in place. The space, not huge to begin with, gets chopped up into three studios that are just big enough (maybe) for the potters to make their work.Now, were like a city, said Kearns, whose career in ceramics has taken her from the Midwest (for undergraduate work at the Kansas City Art Institute) to the Northwest (graduate program at the University of Oregon) to California (San Francisco, where she worked five jobs at once), back to the Northwest (14 years in Washington State, making clay and also exhibiting and marketing it on the wholesale craft show circuit), and, in 2004, to the Roaring Fork Valley. Ceramic studios in the city, space is at a premium. Everythings close together. Not a lot of room.The one element that runs through all the seasons at the Carbondale Clay Center is freedom. Kearns and her staff foster an overall atmosphere of freedom during the summer: Its controlled in school; its controlled at home. Here, they can sing and talk and have a lot of fun. We want them to be free, she said of the kids who attend clay classes.And freedom is among the most important values she has instilled into the residency program. The residents have, for the most part, recently completed their undergraduate course, which focused on a schedule: classes, projects, exhibitions. The residency is a time to experience the freedom, for better or worse, that comes with being an artist: Their time is their own; instruction, even advice, is almost nonexistent, unless the residents seek it out. Financially, they are on their own, too. Their artistic vision is something to be molded on their own.Its my studio. I can do whatever I want, said Lauren Mabry, one of the current trio of residents. Its a really important time as an artist to create your own energy, build your own work. Theres no structure, and you have to learn to make one for yourself.On the artistic side, Mabry, a 23-year-old Wisconsin native who graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute and spent a year as a post-baccalaureate student at Colorado State, says the process at the moment involves narrowing down her interests. Shes not experimenting as much as she did as an undergrad, but trying to improve the body of work she has already begun. She is more selective about what she puts in the kiln. The school isnt footing the bill anymore. Im paying for it, so Ive got to be more selective, she said.Mabry, who has her eye on returning to school in a few years, to a ceramics graduate program, says the freedom thus far is a mixed blessing. But its nice to have no one influencing where youre going, she added. Its daunting, but really healthy. Its scary, but lets you see where you really stand.The residents also receive a broader perspective on their progress by exhibiting their work and giving presentations. There are occasional slide lectures (though Mabry pointed out that, at the first one she gave, attendance was pretty well limited to the Clay Center population). The residents work will be included in Decembers Cup Auction. Mabry and her fellow residents Mark Harro, from Alaska; and East Coaster Alex Watson; plus Kelly McKibben, an MFA who is the studio tech, running the technical side of the Clay Center will organize Januarys Cream & Sugar Invitational. The spotlight shines on the residents with a show of their own in April.

Kearns believes that what goes on outside the Clay Center is nearly as important as what the residents accomplish in their studios.Id like them to leave here with a sense of confidence about their work, and their development as a person, she said. And to be able to juggle the life of an artist. When youre an artist, theres your work here, at the top, and your life is below it. Thats a hard one to learn how to juggle.Another aspect of the resident program, one that probably has particular significance in a small town like Carbondale, is the integration into the community. Kearns stresses that it is not a part of the residents assigned duties to pitch the Clay Center. Thats my role, she said. But she also notes that the residents all have other jobs Mabry at Carbondales Swiss Gourmet deli; Harro and Watson in construction and inevitably, people will see them as a reflection of the eight-year-old Clay Center.I dont choose residents so much on their work as on their personalities and their willingness to interact, said Kearns. Because their work will change and evolve. But personalities matter a lot. Being happy makes a difference; you want people to walk in and feel a happy space, people excited about what theyre doing.Kearns acts as a jury of one in choosing her residents. With a smile, she says shes really good at it and she tells of the two residents last year who became a couple. But Kearns seems to be good at choosing residents from a ceramics perspective as well. All of the residents so far have stayed with ceramics: Past residents have moved on to a clay center in Montana and a crafts school in North Carolina, as well as the graduate program at Ohio State. One is getting a masters in art therapy, and another in at education.The word seems to be getting out. Doing her main recruiting at the National Council for Education of Ceramic Arts annual gathering, and through Ceramics Monthly, Kearns has seen applications double from approximately 15 in the first year to 30 this year. The residents seem to be pleased with what they find here: the facilities and atmosphere at the Clay Center, and the larger valley, which includes the renowned ceramics department at Snowmass Villages Anderson Ranch Arts Center. Mabry said she was persuaded to apply for the residency partly because she had heard good things from past residents, and partly because of Anderson Ranch.Kearns track record is not unblemished. She tells of one resident in the first year of the program who was unhappy mostly because audiences were unreceptive to her highly conceptual work.But recently Kearns got a postcard from the student. She wrote to say what a valuable experience it had been for her here, a time of personal growth, said Kearns.Consider Kearns record

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